After a career spanning the better part of seven decades, fans might have expected blues harmonica player James Cotton to take it easy on his new album Cotton Mouth Man.
Instead, the Grammy winner and cancer survivor comes roaring out of the gate like a thoroughbred on fire.
The heart of the album is its autobiographical character—several songs trace the path of the 78-year-old’s extraordinary journey from plucking cotton in the fields of Mississippi to playing Carnegie Hall.
The brooding “Mississippi Mud” tells of Cotton’s hardscrabble early years out in the cotton fields with eight brothers and sisters where the earth was “bone dry.” After working themselves nearly to exhaustion, they would “pray for rain/all for a chance to do it again.” The sights, sounds, and challenges of working in Mississippi forged a life-long mark in his person and playing: “It’s in my soul and in my blood, that old Mississippi Mud.”
On the slow-cooking groove “Wasn’t My Time to Go,” Cotton discusses the untimely loss of his father and mother (he was orphaned at age nine). He recollects being a “farm boy, short order cook … whatever it took” in order to make ends meet.
Cotton’s mother gave him a 15-cent harmonica before she died, paving the way for the young prodigy. Blues legend Muddy Waters found Cotton playing a local juke joint and brought him to Chicago, the blues capital of the world. Later he established himself as a charismatic bandleader in his own right and toured the world with rock-and-roll giants Led Zeppelin and Santana. A consummate high-energy performer, he dazzled audiences as much for his showmanship (doing back flips on stage) as his virtuosity. Described as “fiery and propulsive” by Blurt Magazine, Cotton was known for blowing so hard that many times on stage the harmonica literally fell apart in his hands.
The new album benefits greatly from collaborations with the younger generation’s blues greats. A wonderful example is “Midnight Train,” a quick-moving, funky track with locomotion powered by Cotton’s lively hooting and Gregg Allman’s rootsy vocals.
Cotton’s musicality and story are profound, but unfortunately the album suffers the Achilles heel of blues music—a tendency to refer to women as objects of gratification. A few tracks also make the obligatory references to whiskey and wine, but they aren’t the thrust of the album. Keb’ Mo’, who sings in Cotton’s place on the emotional Mississippi Mud, spoke for Cotton in an NPR interview by explaining that the album is about Cotton’s “gratitude toward being here.”
The final track, “Bonnie Blue,” is the only track Cotton actually uses his own “voice”—a whisper growl is all that’s left after his cancer treatments—and reflects that Father Time is catching up to him. Rather than traditional exercise, in “Blues Is Good for You,” he presents his doctor’s recommendation: “Keep on blowing strong/don’t matter what else you do … keep on blowing till you 102.” For his fans, it’s welcome advice.